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Grolier Club Exhibitions

Decadent Designer

Max Beerbohm. Will Rothenstein Laying Down the Law. Ink, colored chalks, and wash on paper, [ca. 1895].

Oscar Wilde would write in The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) that each man kills the thing he loves. In the case of both Max Beerbohm and Aubrey Beardsley, neither could resist the impulse to poke fun at the things—and people—they loved. Their comic art often paid homage and expressed affection in the form of ridicule. Beerbohm’s caricature of his dear friend, the artist William Rothenstein, showed the latter as a dogmatic, arrogant youth who never hesitated to tell everybody how to conduct their business, whether in art, writing, or politics. Among the figures receiving his (unwanted) lectures were Oscar Wilde, the novelist George Moore, and the future King, Edward VII (1841–1910), along with Beardsley. Identified as “AUBREY,” he is here a wispy, hawk-nosed outline in profile with a tiny top hat balanced on his head, perhaps echoing one of Beardsley’s own Bon-Mots grotesques.

John Davidson. A Full and True Account of the Wonderful Mission of Earl Lavender. . . with a Frontispiece by Aubrey Beardsley. London: Ward and Downey, 1895.

Inscribed by John Davidson to Aubrey Beardsley.

Ordinarily, Beardsley was the one who added sexual innuendo and salacious imagery not found in the original text. When asked to provide a frontispiece for the picaresque fantasy known as Earl Lavender, by John Davidson (1857­–1909), however, he had the opposite problem. Davidson’s novel described scenes of flagellation set in a place called “Underworld,” where correction was administered in the Whipping Room by the Lady of the Veil—a character intoning such decadently morbid pronouncements as “Life is a disease: the moment we are born we begin to die.” Davidson had usurped Beardsley’s prerogative to shock. In response, Beardsley produced for the firm of Ward and Downey a frontispiece that managed to make Davidson’s sadomasochism seem almost chaste, with a whip-wielding maiden who looked like a figure on a classical frieze, while encouraging viewers to focus instead on visual echoes between the whip and the candelabra on the mantel.

Aubrey Beardsley. The Black Cat, in Four Illustrations to the Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. [Chicago: Stone & Kimball, 1896?].

Throughout the 1890s, Beardsley’s contemporary, the artist Louis Wain (1860–1939), filled the pages of books and magazines with images of anthropomorphized cats and kittens—sometimes wearing just their fur, sometimes dressed in late-Victorian finery, but almost always charming, lively, and endearing. Beardsley was the anti-Wain. While it is true that the psychotic protagonist of “The Black Cat” (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) does regard both of his cats—“Pluto,” whom he blinds by gouging out one eye, then hangs, as well as its successor—as malevolent creatures, Beardsley created a cat that was positively demonic. Perched as an all-black figure atop the murdered corpse of the protagonist’s wife, who is rendered as literally dead white, this muscular and threatening feline is the stuff of nightmares. When hostile critics accused Beardsley’s style of being excessively morbid, this was the sort of thing they had in mind.